Work-life Balance and Working from Home

 
Social Policy & Society 3:3, 223–233 Printed in the United Kingdom

C 2004 Cambridge University Press DOI:10.1017/S1474746404001733

Work–life Balance and Working from Home
Tr a c e y C r o s b i e a n d J e a n n e M o o r e 1

Psychology Section, School of Social Sciences, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough TS1 3BA
E-mail: j.m.moore@tees.ac.uk

In recent years, there has been increasing focus on the question of how to balance work
and life commitments in both academic and political debates. Homeworking is one
initiative that has been promoted as a way of improving the work–life balance. This
paper examines the experience of homeworking drawing on a recently completed ESRC
study on homeworkers. Using the data from 45 interviews and 3 focus groups with
homeworkers from different socio-economic backgrounds, it explores the question of
whether working (or not) from home improves people’s capacity to balance their work
and life commitments.

      I n t ro d u c t i o n

In recent years a new discourse surrounding the work–life balance has emerged replacing
family friendly policies (Bryson et al., 2000; DTI, 2001a, 2002; Duncan, 2002; Dean,
2002; Hogarth et al., 2001; Williams, 2000). According to the DTI

      regardless of age, race or gender, everyone can find a rhythm to help them combine work with
      their other responsibilities or aspirations, and the work–life balance involves adjusting working
      patterns in ways which allow people to achieve this rhythm. (DTI, 2002)

The government has introduced funding for companies wishing to explore work–life
balance initiatives and recent legislation to facilitate flexible working for parents with
children under the age of six, on top of the family friendly policies introduced in the 1999
Employment Relations Act.
     One of the ways in which the government suggests that a balance between work and
other life commitments might be achieved is by working from home (DTI, 2001a, 2002.)
This forms part of a wider trend in which homeworking is presented as an antidote to the
stresses of working life (Aldrich, 1982; Bulos and Chaker, 1991; Galinsky et al., 1993;
Mahfood, 1992; Qvortrup, 1992; Hutchinson and Brewster, 1994; Duxbury et al., 1998;
Hill et al., 1996; Mirchandani, 1998; Sullivan and Lewis, 2001). However, homeworking
is being promoted in this way without a full examination of its value or limitation as a
contributor to the work–life balance.

      H o m e w o r k i n g re s e a rc h

Homeworking is an increasing phenomena, between 1981 and 1998 the number of
people in the UK working mainly from home almost doubled rising from 345,920 to
680,612 (Felstead and Jewson, 2000). More than a quarter of Britain’s labour force are
reported to work at least part of the time from home (Labour Force Survey, 2001). This
is predicted to rise to at least a third of the workforce by 2006 (Henley Centre, 1998).

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There is however a digital divide (Loader, 1998) which has extended to teleworking/
homeworking (Dwelly, 2002; Labour Force Survey, 2001). However traditional forms of
homeworking continue to be a low paid activity for millions in the UK (National Group
on Homeworking, 2002).
     There are many definitions of homeworking (Felstead and Jewson, 2000), but our
research broadly defined it as any paid work that is carried out primarily from home (at
least 20 hours per week). This broad banner therefore includes those working at home
(e.g. employees) or working from home (e.g. self-employed) (Felstead and Jewson, 2000).
This approach allowed for a diversity of experience in homeworkers across the socio-
economic spectrum. It therefore moves beyond much of the research in this area that
tends to lend legitimacy to the experiences of one section of the homeworking population
by examining homogeneous samples of homeworkers.2
     Many researchers acknowledge the differentiated nature of homeworking. Home-
workers are diverse in demographic terms and in relation to gender, skills and income.
In addition not all homeworkers successfully negotiate the social, personal, temporal
and physical transitions between the boundaries of home and work (Nippert-Eng, 1996).
There are potential difficulties and tensions that come with homeworking and teleworking
(Bussing, 1998; Gurstein, 1991; Gurstein, 2001; Haddon, 1998; Huws, 1994; Moran,
1993). Homeworking can increase the permeability of the boundary between work and
family domains, causing attempts to juggle work and family schedules to become more
difficult (Bulos and Chaker, 1995; Olson and Primps, 1984; Crossen, 1990; Foegen, 1993;
Gottlieb et al., 1998; Madigan et al., 1990; Royal College of Art, 1999; Sullivan, 2000).

      D e fi n i n g w o r k – l i f e b a l a n c e

The pursuit of a balance between work and the rest of our daily lives is a fairly recent con-
cern. It has emerged amid growing concerns over contemporary demographic develop-
ments that are bringing about dramatic changes in the gender and age of the work force
(European Commission, 2002; Labour Market Trends, 2001) and increased concerns
within the UK in particular over its long working hours culture (Dean, 2002; Hyman
et al., 2002). These developments have accelerated concerns over health and fitness,
occupational stress and the difficulties in combining work and childcare (DTI, 2001b).
     The trends toward flexible working patterns are also influenced by technological
developments whereby business can be conducted away from the specified office
environment and often at considerably lower financial costs, making working at 3am
and on holiday de riguer (The Observer, 2002).
     There is a financial incentive to encourage flexible working which has been explicit
in any material aimed at the commercial or public sector but this remains hidden where
the benefits are being sold to employees and workers in general.3 It is important therefore
to challenge the current view that that their are only positive benefits to be gained by
pursuing the work–life balance (Hyman et al., 2002).
     Combined with the recent interest in flexible working patterns has been an increasing
focus on the home environment as a place where we work, live, shop and seek entertain-
ment (Henley Centre, 1998; Moore, 2000). This shift to combine work and life more
effectively is part of a cyclical trend which predates the industrial revolution whereby
home and work were not viewed as separate aspects of life spatially or conceptually.
Recent work has suggested that the integration or separation of work and home spheres

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in contemporary western societies is determined by the ways in which people negotiate
the boundary between the two and is in this sense a matter of individual preference
(Nippert-Eng, 1996). This would seem to suggest that the issue of work–life balance is a
subjective matter.
    Government documents offer little explanation or detail of what the work–life balance
actually entails. As pointed out by Guest (2001: 4) this is not unusual as

    [d]ebates about work–life balance often occur without any clear and consistent definition of
    what we mean by work–life balance.

However there have been numerous attempts to operationalise the concept. This includes
both subjective and objective approaches; however the emphasis within research in this
area is on the latter (Guest, 2001; Hyman et al., 2002). The 2003 European working time
directive defines 48 working hours a week as an appropriate maximum. The ‘objective’
definition implied by this is that those who regularly work more than 48 hours a week
will have an imbalance between work and the rest of their life (Guest, 2001). A more
subjective approach would be when there was a perceived balance between work and
other life responsibilities. Clark (2000: 750) defines balance as ‘satisfaction and good
functioning at work and at home with a minimum of role conflict’.
     Most of the work in this area makes a simplistic distinction between home life and
work–life and does not differentiate between different classifications of responsibilities
within each sphere. Williams (2000) suggests that we can map people’s work–life needs
within three different but connected areas of their lives. First, there is personal time and
space: what do we need for the care of self and maintenance of body, mind and soul.
Second, care time and space: what do we need to care properly for others. And thirdly
there is work time and space: what do we need to enable us to gain economic self-
sufficiency. According to Williams (2000) a balance between work and daily life could
be said to be achieved when each of these areas are balanced together.

    Wo r k i n g f ro m h o m e a n d w o r k – l i f e b a l a n c e : i n h a r m o n y o r o u t o f t u n e ?

In this paper we draw on the data from 45 interviews and three focus groups carried
out between December 2001 and June 2002 as part of a study funded by the Economic
and Social Research Council. Seventy per cent of those who took part in the interviews
and focus groups were female.4 All of those selected to take part in the focus groups
and interviews carried out paid work at home for 20 hours or more per week and had
done so for over a year. Nearly all lived with a partner and or children. Of those who
took part in the interviews and focus groups 22 worked in professional occupations (e.g.
designers and managers), 20 worked in semiskilled occupations (e.g. typists and sewing
machinists) and 19 worked in unskilled occupations (e.g. tight packers). The focus on
each of these occupational types is supported by the findings of earlier work (Phizacklea
and Wolkowitz, 1995).
     All but six of the interviews took place in the participants’ homes, while the focus
groups discussions were held in surroundings familiar to the participants. The interviews
were semi-structured and lasted an hour, on average. The focus groups’ schedules were
designed around similar questions to those used in the interviews and lasted between
one and a half and two and a half hours. A thematic approach was used to analyse the
material with the support of NUD*IST software.5

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     When selecting individuals to be interviewed or to take part in the group discussions,
three types of workers were targeted: professional workers (e.g. designers, managers)
semi-skilled (typists, sewing machinists) and unskilled (e.g. assembly piece work).6 The
focus on each of these types is supported by the findings of Phizacklea and Wolkowitz
(1995) who demonstrated the diversity of experience between low-skilled and high-
skilled homework. Of those who participated in interviews or focus groups, 19 worked in
unskilled or semi-skilled occupations, 20 worked in skilled occupations and 22 worked
in professional occupations. While every effort was made to encourage men to take part
in the research the numbers of men (17) and women (44) that took part in focus groups
and interviews offer further evidence that there are more women than men working from
home in general terms.

      D i ff e re n c e s a n d e x p e r i e n c e s : h o m e w o r k e r s ’ l i v e s

The participants in this research shared some of the benefits and difficulties in bringing
work inside the home. A key theme, which emerged from the interview and focus group
data, was that there were common supports and barriers to successful homeworking across
the sample. For every positive support, there was a set of negative barriers. However for
the most part the difference in experience was due to differing skill levels, income or
space levels, as well as gender.7 This support and barrier theme is organised into three
sections to illustrate each of Williams’ areas of life necessary for work–life balance. The
differences and shared experiences across the sample are highlighted.

      Personal time and space

There are personal and psychological consequences of home-based work (Ahrentzen,
1992; Gurstein, 1991) which include personality as well as developed strategies for
working from home (Anderson, 1998; Gurstein, 1991; Lamond, 2000). The current study
found that many of those who took part in the research had developed numerous strategies
for coping with motivation isolation and stress. These included: developing support
networks with colleagues; setting personal targets for the completion of work; making
appointments to socialise with friends or relatives; taking part in regular social activities
outside of the home and developing daily and/or weekly work timetables or schedules.
However many found there were personal implications of homeworking through either
reduced social contact, loneliness, lack of self esteem and motivation. A professional
mother employed by an international organisation said: ‘It’s easy to sit in your office and
be de-motivated and have no one there to gee you up and that kind of thing’ (Female
executive: Interview 22).
    Personal time became fragmented for some homeworkers. During a discussion group
with five Asian women who worked as machinists, one the women asked her colleagues
‘When you work outside of the home you come home to relax. Where do you go when
you want to relax when you work at home?’ Their reply to this was laughter and calls of
‘Nowhere. Nowhere at all’ (Female sewing machinist: Focus Group 1). However, others
found that they had more personal time when working from home. In the main part those
with more personal time tended to be either professional men or professional women
without young children.

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     Much of the research on homeworking has found that homeworking is diversified by
gender (Olson and Primps, 1984; Gurstein, 1991; Gunnarsson and Huws, 1997).8 The
indication from the current study is that because men define themselves primarily as wage
earners, they have fewer personal conflicts when combining home and work than women.
However, traditional male homeworkers suffer increased tensions because they tend to
earn very little. This stratification of gender differences according to occupation was also
found amongst women. Professional women suffered the most personal conflict between
their roles as homemakers and workers, as they tended to see these roles as equal.
This role conflict was most problematic for professional mothers with young children.
Traditional female homeworkers on the other hand tended to define themselves primarily
as homemakers and carers and therefor found prioritising their roles as mothers and
workers much less problematic.
     There were also other differences between the self-perception of traditional and
professional homeworkers that were not differentiated by gender. Most of those in
traditional homeworking occupations said that homeworking needed no special skills.
Those in professional homeworking occupations on the other hand were much more
likely to value their abilities to motivate themselves to organize their work loads and their
abilities to cope with the blurring of the boundaries between their work lives and their
home lives. A professional woman when asked if they thought everyone was suited to
homeworking said: ‘I would very much doubt it. I think you have to have fairly robust
sense of yourself and what you’re doing’ (Female organisational consultant: Interview
42). A female traditional homeworker replied to the same question ‘I wasn’t trained to do
anything because I stayed at home to look after my family and I think I lacked confidence
back then and now it is too late to do anything else’ (Female audio typist: Interview 5).

    C a re t i m e a n d s p a c e

Some advantages of homeworking recently cited include familiarity and comfort,
flexibility, self management, quiet and working undisturbed, no travel, being with the
children (Daniels et al., 2000; Royal College of Art, 1999). All of these were echoed
by our sample. This study found that most homeworkers felt that homeworking afforded
them some level of flexibility in how they used their time, which allowed them to balance
the responsibilities of their paid work with their responsibilities of care for others. The
responsibilities homeworkers said they could manage more easily included the care of
spouses, children, older people or disabled relatives as well household tasks, such as
cleaning, washing, shopping, gardening and paying bills. However, there are tensions
inherent in these advantages, as being with the children does not support working
undisturbed. Furthermore, traditional homeworkers, doing low-skilled work for low pay,
tended to mind their children while they were working, in contrast to most professional
homeworkers.
     Those with children over the age of 12 gave very positive accounts of how working
at home improved their relationships with their children and their ability to care for them.
One of the professional mothers interviewed said that despite working longer hours she
spent more time with her children. ‘I tend to play more with the kids, whether it’s because
I’m here and they’re in the house, and I feel guilty because I’m not with them. So I do think
although I work longer hours I spend more time with them’ (Female office administrator:
Interview 35).

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     Different ethnic groups would seem to have particular homeworking practices. Asian
women in the focus group and interview sample reported the strength of their family
support structures which allowed them to combine paid work with domestic work. For
example a young mother was able to work and look after her baby at the same time
because she lived with her mother in law. She said: ‘The baby needs me sometimes.
If he is being really difficult my mother in law looks after him for a little time’ (Female
sewing machinist: Interview 11). However, many commented on the lack of differentiation
between their paid work and domestic chores, highlighting the cultural differences in the
distinction between home and work (Nippert-Eng, 1996).

      Wo r k t i m e a n d s p a c e

Earlier research has shown that support and tension within the homeworking experience
are shaped by the use and sharing of spatial resources (Bulos and Chaker, 1991 and
1995; Ahrentzen, 1990; Gurstein, 1991). The current study found that having a dedicated
workspace was emphasised as a necessity by many of the professional homeworkers,
whereas homeworkers in traditional homeworking occupations viewed it as desirable
rather than essential. Some homeworkers moved their offices to an outside shed or to the
attic to try and increase the boundary between home and work. For others the intrusion
of public working life through phone calls and post created tensions with others in the
family. For some especially those in traditional homeworking many of the tensions within
the homeworking experience were related to a lack of space. For example when asked
if the building he lived in felt like home a young father replied: ‘Sometimes I feel like
throwing all my work things out of the window. When the room is full of cartons and
work things it is not my home it is my factory but my family have to live in my factory’
(Male electrical assembly worker: Interview 6).
     Many homeworkers said that they had problems with the amount of time they spent
on their paid work. These problems included working longer hours than they are paid
for and working longer hours than someone who did a similar job to them outside of the
home. This tendency to work long hours caused problems in people’s family relationships.
Almost half of those interviewed said that their partners/spouses complained because
they worked too much. The reasons given by traditional and professional homeworkers
for working long hours reflected the differentiation in their incomes. Many of those in
traditional homeworking occupations found that they had to work very long hours due
to their low rates of pay. Professional homeworkers gave other reasons for the extra time
they devoted to work, such as professional pride, they were starting their own business,
or they felt their job was a vocation.

      What I try to do is, is try to make a distinction between work days and non-work days . . . If I
      don’t make that distinction . . . I’ll be back to doing a 40/50 hour week and I’ll just be getting
      paid for 30 hour week. (Female policy officer: Interview 18)

      How ‘balanced’ is homeworking?

Applying Williams’ broad framework to the experience of homeworkers has allowed us to
explore different aspects of daily life with regard to time and space. Williams’ framework
is useful as an objective lens with which to view working from home and other flexible

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working practices. However in doing so, two issues emerge. First, as Williams would no
doubt agree, understanding home, work and family life in terms of these three areas alone
does not reveal how balanced they are for the people concerned. The homeworkers in
our sample reported mixed feelings about working from home, representing the practice
as a double-edged sword (see also Tietze, 2002). Williams’ model, although allowing
for increased focus on different aspects of home and work, does not offer us a way of
evaluating their impact, assessing which elements feel more pressurising or liberating,
regardless of how they seem to outsiders looking in. Objective criteria will always be
inadequate in isolation.
     Secondly, exploring the experiences of even a small number of participants, in this
case homeworkers, leads to greater insight as to the tensions and differences among them,
than to an overall conclusion about work–life balance. In this way, this paper suggests that
adopting a model such as that proposed by Williams allows the work–life balance to be
evaluated and monitored for specific groups of people. Home-based work in itself does
not facilitate the breakdown of traditional gender roles (Sullivan and Lewis, 2001: 141)
nor does it smooth out the inequalities that education and income bring. As Phillips et al.
(2002) recently argued a ‘one size fits all’ policy on flexible working is inappropriate.
The model does not take into account the expectations, motivations and experiences of
homeworkers which shape their overall satisfaction with homeworking. Our experiential
approach would suggest there is further merit in exploring the work–life balance from
the perspective of those trying to work flexibly, as important factors such as gender, skills
and income shape the whole experience of working life (LaValle, 2002). In particular the
inequality that underpins homeworkers needs to be taken into account.
     Furthermore, home life is not necessarily rosy for all, and the home, despite its
continued stereotypical representation as our castle, safe haven and respite, is fraught
with tensions for many (Moore, 2000). Until the work–life balance debate includes a
realistic appraisal of home life, acknowledging inherent tensions, it will remain generic
and removed from most people’s experience.
     In conclusion, the current emphasis on work–life balance should be welcomed, as
for those companies which take it seriously, it offers the potential for greater flexibility
and choice for a broad range of workers. Little progress can be made in the development
of policy in this area if the term remains ambiguous and ill-defined. However a more
cautious approach to homeworking would be wise given that so little is known about its
effects on home and family life. As Dwelly and Bennion (2003) have recently concluded,
many organisations are considering adopting homeworking policies, but there is some
uncertainty as to how to proceed and a lack of agreed guidelines. Creating a balance
between work and home life is certainly a goal worth pursuing. However for many
homeworkers this harmony is out of reach due to the poor pay and long hours that
sewing, packing and assembling outwork involves. There are many difficulties remaining
in the enforcement of the minimum wage for homeworkers which merits additional effort.
     For professional women, especially those with small children, the problem is more
personal in nature. One suggestion is to offer semi-career breaks, where those with young
children are offered part-time employment while they prioritize caring for their children.
If the same type of semi-career break was offered to mothers and fathers, this might help
in some small way to closing the gender divisions in childcare and therefore contribute to
a shift in the work–life balance for many. However, as research in Sweden suggests, there
are many factors which shape the uptake levels of available parental leave, including

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individual attitudes, family negotiations as well as workplace culture (Haas, Allard and
Hwang, 2002). This would suggest that one direction for future research is the way the
work–life balance is negotiated within the family (cf. Jarvis, 1999).
     Finally, homeworking is not the panacea for modern working life (Moore and Crosbie,
2002; The Independent on Sunday, 2003). Those who are thinking of working from home
should give careful consideration to their personality, skills and aspirations. For example,
those who have a tendency to work long hours outside of the home, might find that
home life is even further marginalised by work life. Due to the size of our sample many
of the conclusions drawn in this paper have to be tentative in nature. If we are to fully
understand the effects of homeworking on home and family life more research is needed
from the perspective of homeworkers.

      Notes
     1 We are grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council (R000223592) for funding this
research.
     2 For example see Duxbury et al., 1998.
     3 It is questionable that the new working arrangements introduced by organisations in recent years
are in the interests of employees (see Purcell et al., 1999).
     4 With efforts made to include male homeworkers this proportion offers further evidence to suggest
that more women than men do paid work from home (Felstead et al., 1996, Felstead and Jewson, 2000).
     5 This was NUD*IST software by QSR International Pty Ltd., a qualitative data analysis software
package designed for handling non-numerical unstructured data by techniques of indexing, searching and
theorizing.
     6 The difficulties involved in gaining access to homeworkers in traditional occupations are well
documented (Felstead and Jewson, 2000). Here let it suffice to say that, without the help of the National
Group on Homeworking and others working in the community, it would have been impossible to conduct
this research.
     7 On the whole traditional homeworkers have what are conventionally described as skilled semi-
skilled or unskilled occupations which are predominantly low discretion forms of employment in that
they are predictable, routine, standardised and rule dominated (Felstead and Jewson, 2000). Professional
homeworkers, on the other hand, have high discretion professional or managerial occupations that tend
to be variable, complex and choice dominated forms of employment (Felstead and Jewson, 2000).
     8 A recent survey by the Department for Education and Employment suggests that men are
increasingly asking to work from home (Observer, 19 November 2000).

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